In Australia, many school canteens have returned to offering junk food, or pupils have started buying fast food outside their schools. The association has developed policies intended to counter these trends; in some schools, they have taken over providing school food. In response to the 2002 Childhood Obesity Summit, former Premier of New South Wales Bob Carr launched the "Fresh Tastes NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy."
Healthy Kids has become a key partner of the Ministry of Health in developing the school lunch plan. The strategy is to develop a taste for healthier foods among schoolchildren by promoting and featuring healthier menu options, while limiting the availability of less nutritious foods. The program's menu guide was partially created by Rosemary Stanton.
Brazil had been providing free school meals for children from low income families since the 1940s, but in 2009 the program was expanded to provide for all of the country's 40 million children. This was done in response to growing evidence that free school meals helped prevent obesity and increase nutritional education.
The program uses a nationwide network of 8,000 nutritionists to design the school meals and requires a minimum of 30% of the food served to be from local family farms in the schools' municipalities. The El Salvador municipality has gone one step further and is dishing up plant-based meals to its 170,000 students.
Canada has no national school meal program, and elementary schools are usually not equipped with kitchen facilities. Parents are generally expected to provide a packed lunch for their children to take to school, or have their children return home to eat during the lunch period. However, some non-profit organizations dedicated to student nutrition programs do exist.
A recent study of school meal programs across Canada estimated that programs are found in about 35% of JK-12 schools, with a minimum of 1,018,323 or 21% of students in the country receiving free breakfasts, lunches, and/or snacks. There is considerable diversity in the design of such programs across Canada's provinces and territories. Though non-profit entities implement the programs, governments contributed more than Can$93 million in 2018/19.
Students in China must purchase lunch, but at a reduced monthly cost that equates to about $0.70 per day. Included with the price is a boxed lunch for every student. Students can find a healthy blend of rice, meat, and vegetables inside the boxed lunch, and can typically choose between two to three meals.
Particularly in impoverished rural areas, students' access to nutritious food is often limited. The government has funded "nutritious lunch" schemes in rural public schools to combat malnutrition. Government data from June 2017 indicated that 48% of schools were unable to fully meet recommended nutrition standards.
Free in all-day primary schools (a minority of primary schools) for pupils who live in households that receive Gross Minimum Income, children of asylum-seekers, unaccompanied migrant children, and children under the guardianship of the state (Social Welfare Services), children in households in which a member has a severe disability, health problem (Kantaris et al., 2020).
In Estonia, free school dinners are served in elementary and secondary schools. Nutritional guidelines for Estonian school meals are based on the Estonian food pyramid. At the pyramid's base are water and exercise. The next tier up includes starches, fruits, and vegetables. According to Estonia's Food-Based Dietary Guidelines, these foods should comprise the majority of each meal.
The middle section of the pyramid includes dairy products and meat. The Guidelines suggest eating these foods in small portions on a daily basis. Just below the top tier are oils, butter and nuts. At the peak of the pyramid are foods such as ice cream, soft drinks, honey, and biscuits: high-sugar foods which should be eaten sparingly, as special treats.
Finland provides free, catered hot school meals to all pupils from pre-primary to upper secondary education every school day, as guaranteed by the 1948 Basic Education Act. Section 31 of the Basic Education Act states: "A pupil attending basic education shall be provided with a balanced and appropriately organized and supervised meal on every school day."
Some Finnish cities had offered poor students free school dinners since the beginning of the 20th century. For example, Kuopio did so starting in 1902, and extended school dinners to all students in 1945. According to Finnish National Board of Education statistics from the year 2014, the average school meal was valued at 2.80 euros per student-school day, totaling 532 euros per student for the school year. This sum included ingredients, labor costs, kitchen equipment, and other fixed expenses, but neither property costs nor taxes. Children taking part in before- and after-school activities are also served a free healthy snack.
Normally, Finnish schools provide lunch at school canteens in the form of a buffet, where pupils serve themselves as much as they want. Schools often use a model plate to guide eating habits towards the following recommendations:
In France, lunch is considered the most important meal of the day. The lunch break is one to two hours long, and students can get lunch at school or go home for it. Students must pay for cafeteria lunches; the cost of the meal varies by region. A student's family pays for half of the meal, while the school pays for the remainder. The 2001 food recommendation guidelines, signed by the Minister for National Education, state that school lunches must be healthy and balanced. Menus vary daily and are posted for parents.
In the 1970s, the French government began to work on improving school lunches. In 1971, the government established nutritional guidelines for French school meals. The 1971 food recommendation guidelines stated that each meal should contain raw vegetables, such as salads and fruits; protein in the form of milk or other dairy products; cooked vegetables twice per week; and carbohydrates on the remaining days.
Specifically, the guidelines state that:
Most school lunches in France are four-course meals. Meals usually begin with an appetizer course (soup, a fresh vegetable, or salad) followed by a main course with protein. Salmon is usually served with a vegetable like broccoli. A cheese-plate third course of jam, fresh bread, and cheese comes next, followed by a sweet dessert like a pastry or fruit. A typical lunch might include potato leek soup, carrot and bean salad, lamb with saffron, an assortment of cheeses, and grapefruit. Each meal is accompanied with water.
French schools do not have vending machines.
In Finland, lunches for students are free, and the government ensures that lunches meet high nutritional standards. Usually, there are plenty of veggies, like turnips and beetroot, to balance out some starches and grains. Crêpes topped with jam offer a sweet treat, while the protein in Finland usually takes the form of smoked ham or hernekeitto (dried pea soup). Usually, some crispbread is served on the side to balance out the meal.
Lunch is provided only in all-day schools, mostly subsidized. Costs can be reimbursed as part of the education and participation benefits for low-income households with basic income support for jobseekers, social assistance, asylum seekers benefits or supplementary child benefit or housing benefit (under the Child Benefit Act).
School meals are provided for free at public schools in India. The POSHAN Scheme (formerly titled the Mid Day Meal Scheme) is a school meal program designed to better the nutritional standing of school-age children nationwide. The program provides free lunches on working days for children in government-run primary and upper primary schools, government-aided Anganwadis, Madrasas and Maktabs. Serving 120 million children in over 1.27 million schools and Education Guarantee Scheme centers, the POSHAN Scheme is the largest of its kind in the world.
A single afternoon lunch usually contains a cereal which is locally available, made in a way that conforms to prevailing local customs. Each child receives milk and either soup or vegetables cooked as curry. The rice and other grain served during the midday meal is fortified with nutrients such as iron, vitamin B12 and folate.
Each primary level student must be provided with 100 grams of food grains each day, along with 20 grams of protein, 50 grams of leafy vegetables and 5 grams of oil and fat. Upper-primary and senior students must be provided with 150 grams of food grains, 30 grams of protein, 75 grams of leafy vegetables and 7.5 grams of oil and fat.
In Italy, students will typically receive a two-course meal for lunch. In Rome, local law stipulates that 70% of the meal must be organic. School meals in Italy provide regular Italian cuisine, although they may vary among regions and towns. The first course consists of pasta mixed with protein or vegetables, usually grilled chicken. The second course is a light tomato salad or some mozzarella. Some fresh fruit is used for a sweet dessert.
The Italian government is doing a large-scale study to measure and involve students in food habits, diets, and food choices. However, many parents wish to maintain the right to pack home meals for their children since school food is rather expensive.
Many school meals in Japan are healthy for kids and revolve around rice, fish, and vegetables as the main ingredients. Unlike other countries with adult volunteers or teachers who serve the lunches, the students serve other students in Japan. To help teach kids responsibility and respect, students are accountable for serving and cleaning up after their counterparts.
As of 2004, 99% of elementary school students and 82% of junior high school students in Japan ate kyūshoku (school lunch). The food is grown locally, is almost never frozen, and (barring dietary restrictions) is the same for every student. Children in most districts cannot bring their own meals to school until they reach high school, nor do schools have vending machines; instead, children are taught to eat what they are served.
In both elementary school and middle school, students put on white coats and caps and serve their classmates, who then all eat together in their classrooms instead of in a cafeteria. To make lunches affordable for students, municipalities pay for the labor costs, while parents, who are billed monthly, pay for the ingredients. These typically cost about 250 to 300 yen (about USD $3) per meal per student. There are reduced-price and free options for poorer families.
In most Malaysian schools, regardless of whether they are public or private schools, students eat in a canteen where they purchase food and drinks from vendors. School canteens usually offer Malay, Chinese, and Indian foods, with varieties of rice, noodles, and breads. The average Malaysian school canteen offers varieties of Nasi Lemak, Nasi Goreng, Chicken Rice, Popiah, and Laksa.
School canteens sell food and drinks at reduced prices. Underprivileged students can apply for the free-food program which, depending on the school, is either sponsored by the school's parent-teacher association or by the Ministry of Education. Low-income students may also be eligible for the School Milk Program, which is funded by milk companies and non-governmental organizations.
Free (only in state schools) for children in low-income households; households in which a student/parent/sibling suffers from terminal or chronic mental health illness; households in which a student is experiencing neglect due to family difficulties, domestic violence or substance abuse; and households with refugee status/asylum-seeker/subsidiary temporary protection.
Until 2020, New Zealand did not have any school meal program aside from board-run school breakfasts that were not provided by the central government. After assuming office, New Zealand's Labour-led government announced 20,000 children would benefit from school lunches by 2021. As of September 2023, the program had expanded to provide lunches to more than 230,000 students.
In April 2012, the State of Osun in Nigeria pioneered a statewide school meals program for all public elementary school pupils. Called the O'Meals program (an acronym for the Osun Elementary School Feeding and Health Program), As of July 2014, it was providing lunch to over 252,000 children in 100% of Osun's elementary schools.
Its estimated cost is N50 (USD $0.31) per child per day. All food items are sourced locally from farmers and others on the supply chain, enhancing employment within the state. Addressing child malnutrition has raised students' academic performance, and has increased school enrollment by 24% compared to figures from before April 2012.
Main meals consist of tomato rice that usually is mixed with chicken and a steamed vegetable on the side. In addition to staples such as rice, beans, and yams served with stews, soups, and vegetables, the programme provides daily fruits.
Norwegian school lunches were supplied from Sweden during World War II, partly privately financed. Later, all public school lunches were discontinued, so most Norwegian students bring a packed lunch from home. In 2007, schools began providing one free piece of fruit each day for all pupils in grades 8–10. Norwegian schools also sell subsidized milk.
School meals in most Singaporean primary and secondary schools, as well as junior colleges, are provided in each school's canteen (or tuckshop). The canteens consist of stalls which sell a variety of foods as well as beverages. To cater to the many races, religions, and cultures in Singapore, canteens often offer a range of cuisines, including Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Western foods.
To encourage healthier eating habits among children, the Health Promotion Board of Singapore launched the Healthy Eating in Schools Program, which gives an award to schools which serve healthy meals. To receive the award, schools must reduce the sugar content in drinks and desserts, serve fewer deep-fried and fatty foods, and include two servings of greens in their meals.
In Korea, student lunches are about having the right portions of meats, starches, and vegetables. The majority of the meal consists of rice. Smaller quantities of soup, kimchi, veggies, and marinated pork shoulder help to round out the perfectly balanced meal.
School lunches have been free in Swedish elementary schools since 1973. The government or municipality covers all charges. Most school lunches are buffet-style and chiefly include potatoes, pasta or rice; meat or fish; and vegetables. Milk and water are usually offered as drinks. There are also vegetarian options, as well as foods that meet religious requirements; these foods are also free of charge.
Upper secondary schools do not have to provide meals for their students, but many, both public and charter schools do. Usually, each municipality signs a private contract with a catering company which provides school food. Many of the food products are imported, but still meet a high standard of quality.
In many schools, teachers or the school principal eat with the pupils, with the goal of creating a stronger connection between students and school authorities. Swedish schools also feature international food weeks and vegetarian weeks.
The typical student lunch in Ukraine consists of three courses. First, students get a rich soup, like a beef soup mixed with beets and cabbage. Then, students will have meat and starch for the main course. A common meal for lunch is grilled sausage with cheese stuffed dumplings. Then, a sweet dessert will finish the meal. A shortbread biscuit is an everyday treat to serve with lunch.
Due to the economic boom, obesity has developed into a known health concern amongst adolescents in the United Arab Emirates. The past three decades have seen the largest increases in child obesity. Studies have shown that rates of obesity among the UAE's schoolchildren have surpassed the child obesity rates in both the United States and Europe.
Traditional cuisine in the Persian Gulf region, once high-fiber and low-fat, has become Westernized, and now consists of many more high-fat, high-sodium, and high-cholesterol foods. Exercise levels among children have also decreased rapidly, causing the surge of obesity in adolescents.
The school meal standards for England were developed in 2014 and include:
In August 2019, it was reported that local government planning for a "no-deal" Brexit could necessitate loosened legal requirements for school meals, for example by allowing them to be made more expensive or less healthy; possibly even discarding the requirements entirely. One council also said that "special dietary requirements may be difficult to meet" and that fresh food might have to be replaced with frozen and tinned goods, while another mentioned the possibility of a return to rationing. However, as of the 2023-24 school year, the standards remain in-place.
National School Lunch Program is a federal nutrition assistance program operating in over 101,000 public schools, non-profit private schools, and residential care institutions. It is regulated and administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program provides "nutritionally balanced meals" at low or no cost to more than 31 million children each school day.
Since its inception, the National School Lunch Program has expanded substantially. It now includes the School Breakfast Program, the Snack Program, a Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Summer Food Service Program. At the State level, the National School Lunch Program is usually administered by state education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.
School meal programs in the United States provide meals free of charge, or at a reduced (government-subsidized) price, to the children of low-income families. Those who do not qualify for free or reduced price are charged a nominal fee. Vending machines in schools are also a major source of competitive food for students. Under pressure from parents and anti-obesity advocates, many school districts moved to ban sodas, junk foods, and candy from vending machines and cafeterias.
Large Scale School Feeding
Government Meal Provision
|Antigua and Barbuda||Yes|
|Australia||Yes||No provision||Government programs exist to discourage consumption of non-nutritious alternative foods.|
|Austria||Yes||Subsidised meals||New scheme providing free school meals on a targeted basis in Vienna primary schools.|
|Belgium||Yes||Subsidised meals||Pilot project in the French-speaking community targeted at the most disadvantaged schools (only pre-primary level).|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||Yes|
|Brazil||Yes||Universal free meals||Brazil had provided free school meals for all children since 2009.|
|Bulgaria||Yes||Subsidised meals||Bulgarian Red Cross project for low-income children (7–18) in targeted schools in 24 districts (schools-based targeting in some areas and individual targeting in others).|
|Canada||No||Targeted free meals||Canadian elementary schools typically lack kitchen facilities, as parents are expected to have their children return home for lunch or send them to school with a packed lunch. However, some non-profit organizations dedicated to student nutrition programs do exist.|
|Central African Republic||Yes|
|China||Yes||Targeted free meals||In impoverished rural areas, students' access to nutritious food is limited. The government has funded "nutritious lunch" schemes in rural public schools to combat malnutrition.|
|Croatia||Yes||Subsidised meals||Targeting practices vary across the country. May be free for beneficiaries of social assistance, unemployed parents, children of disabled people from the Croatian Homeland War, children of deceased Homeland War defenders.|
|Cyprus||Yes||Targeted free meals||Free for qualifying children in all-day primary schools.|
|Czech Republic||Yes||Targeted free meals||Free for low-income children aged 3–15 (receiving minimum income), if schools participate in the funding scheme.|
|Denmark||No||No provision||Denmark do not provide free school meals.|
|Estonia||Yes||Universal free meals||Free school dinners are served in elementary and secondary schools.|
|Finland||Yes||Universal free meals||Finland provides free, catered hot school meals to all pupils from pre-primary to upper secondary education every school day, as guaranteed by the 1948 Basic Education Act.|
|France||Yes||Subsidised meals||Students can get lunch at school or go home for it. Meals are subsidized by the school. Most meals include four courses: an appetizer, main dish, cheese plate, and dessert. French schools do not have vending machines.|
|Germany||Yes||Targeted free meals||Lunch is provided only in all-day schools, mostly subsidised. Can be reimbursed, as part of the education and participation benefits for qualifying households.|
|Greece||Yes||Subsidised meals||Government scheme in 992 (out of 4449) selected primary schools in 74 out of 332 municipalities of the country & private pilot DIATROFI scheme in 73 schools in vulnerable socio-economic areas.|
|Hungary||Yes||Targeted free meals||Free in primary school (50% reduction in secondary school) for children receiving the regular child protection benefit or in foster care.|
|India||Yes||Universal free meals||School meals are provided for free at public schools in India. Serving 120 million children in over 1.27 million schools and Education Guarantee Scheme centres, the Midday Meal Scheme is the largest of its kind in the world.|
|Iran||Yes||Universal free meals||In 1975, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi started a program for 'Free and Compulsory Education and a daily free meal' for all children from kindergarten to 14 years of age. It provided one-third of a pint of free milk to all children in Iran, as well as pistachios, fresh fruit, and biscuits.|
|Ireland||Yes||Subsidised meals||Government scheme in 890 schools, selected on the basis of a number of community characteristics, such as the concentration of unemployed households, households in local authority housing, traveller families, or large households.|
|Italy||Yes||Subsidised meals||School meals in Italy provide regular Italian cuisine, although they may vary among regions and towns. School food is rather expensive.|
|Japan||Yes||Subsidised meals||Municipalities and parents split the costs of meals. These typically cost about 250 to 300 yen (about USD $3) per meal per student. There are reduced-price and free options for poorer families.|
|Latvia||Yes||Universal free meals||Free for first to fourth grade students. Many municipalities also provide free meals for older students.|
|Lithuania||Yes||Universal free meals||Free for pre-primary and first-grade pupils.|
|Luxembourg||Yes||Targeted free meals||Price depends on household income. Free for children living in a household receiving the minimum income or to children identified by local social office as ‘experiencing precariousness or social exclusion’.|
|Malaysia||Yes||Universal free meals||School canteens sell food and drinks at reduced prices. Underprivileged students can apply for the free-food program, and low-income students may also be eligible for a School Milk Program.|
|Malta||Yes||Targeted free meals||Free (only in state schools) for qualifying children in low-income or troubled domestic situations.|
|Netherlands||Yes||No provision||Netherlands do not provide free school meals.|
|New Zealand||Yes||No provision||New Zealand's government-run school meal program was created in 2021. As of September 2023, the program had expanded to provide lunches to more than 230,000 students.|
|Nigeria||Yes||Targeted free meals||In April 2012, the State of Osun in Nigeria pioneered a statewide school meals programme for all public elementary school pupils.|
|Norway||No||Subsidised meals||Most Norwegian students bring lunch from home. In 2007, schools began providing one free piece of fruit each day for all pupils in grades 8–10. Norwegian schools also sell subsidized milk.|
|Philippines||Yes||No provision||School meals in the Philippines appear to be relatively simplistic, consisting mainly of rice, meat, and gravy.|
|Poland||Yes||Subsidised meals||Free for children living in low-income household. In practice that there are caps on what proportion of children in each school are eligible.|
|Portugal||Yes||Targeted free meals||Price depends on household income. Free for children living in low-income household (first income band of child benefit) or with disabilities.|
|Republic of the Congo||Yes|
|Romania||Yes||Subsidised meals||Pilot programme in 150 selected schools in 2020–2021.|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||Yes|
|Sao Tome and Principe||Yes|
|Singapore||Yes||No provision||School meals in most Singaporean primary and secondary schools, as well as junior colleges, are provided in each school's canteen (or tuckshop).|
|Slovakia||Targeted free meals||Free for children living in low-income household in primary schools and all children in the last year of pre-school education.|
|Slovenia||Yes||Targeted free meals||Free for children living in low-income househol.|
|South Korea||Yes||Targeted free meals||South Korea has provided free school lunches to low-income students since the 1980s at the primary and secondary school levels.|
|Spain||Yes||Targeted free meals||Guidelines vary between autonomous communities and cities. Meals may be free for children living in low-income households or in foster care, children in households suffering from gender-based violence, victims of terrorism, unaccompanied minors, and children with disabilities.|
|Sweden||Yes||Universal free meals||School lunches have been free in Swedish elementary schools since 1973. The government or municipality covers all charges.|
|United Arab Emirates||Yes||No provision||Due to the economic boom, obesity has developed into a known health concern amongst adolescents in the United Arab Emirates.|
|United Kingdom||Yes||Targeted free meals||The school meal standards for England were developed in 2014 and set guidelines that school lunches meet certain nutritional requirements. While concerns were raised that Brexit could render the guidelines too difficult to maintain, they remain in effect as of 2023.|
|United States||Yes||Targeted free meals||National School Lunch Program is a federal nutrition assistance program operating in over 101,000 public schools, non-profit private schools, and residential care institutions.|
Several countries stand out in determining which country serves the best school lunch. Japan and Nigeria are known for healthy lunches, while students in Rome, Italy, are guaranteed lunches comprised of at least 70% organic food. Other countries go for variety: France serves 4-course meals, Ukraine provides 3 courses, and South Korea provides a balanced meal that usually includes rice.